Friday, April 10, 2009

The Fifth Sense: Umami on the Brain…

It's been almost two weeks since I set foot in this high-end burger hot spot that seems to have all of the LA foodie community buzzing about its handcrafted patties, brioche-like buns and creative combinations of condiments and accompaniments. I had just finished up a long day on the beach with a bunch of friends, playing volleyball, catching up on chit chat in the sand and drinking a simultaneously refreshing and dehydrating elixir of VitaminWater and alcohol. Delicious, might I add...Left feeling faint from the sun and famished by our consistent liquid intake over the past six hours, we decided that we needed some food. Good food. But not just any good food - we wanted the satisfaction of something a little greasy, but also the pleasure of eating something wholesome, fresh and flavorful. In my sun- and vodka-induced delirium, I suggested the green-leafed outpost on La Brea Ave that had me waiting for weeks to find the perfect opportunity to go. That time was now. That place was Umami Burger.

After reading about this new burger joint for weeks in every possible e-newsletter including Thrillist, Daily Candy and Eater LA, I knew that I had to give Umami Burger a try. Every time I drove north up La Brea to my internship in West Hollywood, my eyes would inadvertently stray to the right as I approached the 8th Street crossing, gazing curiously into the glaring glass-paned box that sticks out like a sore thumb underneath the unnecessarily obnoxious COPY USA sign. Inside, I could see straight lights, and lots of them – sharp-angled tables, perfectly upright chairs and minimalist d├ęcor at all once turned me off to it and beckoned me closer. Finally, a couple of Saturdays ago, intrigued and slightly intoxicated, I begged that we visit Umami Burger and finally size up this well-received newcomer to the fickle La Brea dining drive. I already knew what I was ordering when I stepped inside the avant-garde take on a neighborhood burger bistro – the Mideast Burger with Sweet Potato Chips. I’d been staring this menu down for weeks…I was ready

I could barely sit still waiting for my luscious lamb burger and crisp sweet potato slices to be set before me. This is what I had been waiting for – to try a burger from the up-and-coming, party-crashing establishment that has unassumingly rocked the LA food scene blogging world. Around me, I could feel the energy of fellow foodies who had read about Umami Burger’s special freshly handcrafted patties on LA’s endless supply of food and dining blogs and were also reeling in anticipation and excitement for the moment when they, too, would enter into the community of Umami Burger tasters. I could hardly contain myself.

My savory-smelling burger and sweet-scented chips arriving, I needn’t wait any longer. I was thrilled to find before me a perfectly-proportioned stack, artfully arranged on the bottom half of a fluffy yet sturdy bun that almost looked and tasted like it was pulled from the basket of freshly-baked, delicately sweet brioche in an artisanal French boulangerie. Slathered carefully with a spattering of tzaziki laced with wide ribbons of cucumber and harissa sauce that was just thick enough to not drip out of the burger, the bun beautifully withheld the heftiness of the two near-round lamb sausages nestle under the cap of the dessert-like bread set. The texture of the sausages was almost indescribable; no where near finely-ground, the meat inside the crisp casing was ground just like the leftovers from my family’s Christmas ham are done, like little savory pellets of slow-roasted protein. The lamb was moist, well seasoned with spices from the East, and incredibly balanced with the subdued heat of the harissa sauce and the obvious coolness of the tzaziki spread. Little did I know, the sweet potato chips I had ordered as my burger’s partner-in-crime complemented the savory, brothy and meaty taste that the Japanese meaning of the word “umami” encompasses. While the menu claims that they are “lightly seasoned,” these deep-fried slices of sweet potato heaven were reminiscent of the Crustos I used to get in my kids meal at the Seattle-area Taco Time chain with my bean and cheese burrito and Mexi-fries. Tortilla chips coated in cinnamon and sugar and fried to sweet-tooth perfection, these tasty triangles were a treat to me then, and it dawned on me there at Umami Burger that these sweet potato chips were the grown-up version of the objects of my beloved sweet-and-crunchy crush. They almost tasted like they had a tinge of caramelized sugar or maple syrup to them, which might seem like an odd partner to my Mediterranean-inspired main course, but in fact rounded out my meal quite nicely.

Recovering from my post-Umami ecstasy in the next few days following my first of an already-foreseen many trips to this hip burger hotspot, I discovered on The Daily Dish that Umami Burger had added new items to their menu mere hours after I stepped out of its door. WHAT?! New items?! I had to know. Furiously navigating my way through the various links that eventually took me to the original report, I found out that among Umami Burger’s new items were a scallop burger and eggplant fries. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized just how soon I would be reunited with my new favorite eatery for sinfully delicious burgers and fries. We shall be together again soon, Umami Burger. Better get that grill fired up, that fryer crackling with oil, and that scallop burger lovingly formed in the kitchen. I’m going to be back before you know it.

Umami Burger
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Sunday
850 S La Brea, Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 931-3000

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Owned by April Fool's...

I tend to be a little foggy-headed first thing in the morning when I wake up. My early-morning routine consists of a healthy dose of exercise to shake me out of my hazy stupor, followed by bright and sunny breakfast fare like whole grain and fruit pancakes, luscious berries enveloped by Greek yogurt, nuts and honey, and yes, occasionally a poached egg on top of oatmeal (see post from February 4th). This winning combination gets me feeling like a champion, ready to take on the daunting worlds of school and work, knowing that I am chipper, alert, and best of all, extremely well-fed.

Only this morning, I forgot one minor, teensy little's April Fool's Day. Imagine my delight this morning when I open an email from The Rundown, one of my favorite daily email services, and read about this fantastic restaurant on Wilshire called "Gratis," where customers can name their own prices for incredibly gourmet-sounding edibles. Tender Kobe beef sliders, and I get to decide how much I want to pay for them?? Amazing! A few minutes after I gleefully forwarded this little electronic ray of sunshine to all of my friends, asking them to join me for a night of carefree culinary revelry this weekend at a fantastic diamond-in-the-rough dining destination, I was confronted by a rude awakening. Delightfully surprised by a quick response from my boyfriend, I was instantly disheartened by the three painfully obvious words glowing on the screen of my glossy white MacBook before me: "It's April Fool's." My immediate thought? No, it's not... followed by, oh is... Panicked, I scrolled down to re-read the editorial scoop on this ground-breaking eatery, only to find that, yes, it was in fact a joke. A very cruel, harsh and inhuman joke, might I add...

Thankfully, while this depression-inducing ruse put a minor damper on my morning, I had unknowingly softened this terrible blow to my happiness by whipping up some of the best muffins I have ever tried. Strikingly similar to the consistency and texture of a crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside cornbread muffin, these palm-sized pastries achieved the perfect balance of sweet, spicy and savory, thanks to dried cranberries, grated cheddar cheese, sauteed green onions, and a mix of thyme, oregano and sage. I adapted this recipe from the Whole Foods market recipe database with a few changes of my own, and eschewed the suggestion to make them in the mini-muffin size. My scientific formula for a successful meal of muffins? Bigger muffin = better morning. If you, too, have fallen victim to an unjust April Fool's Day prank today, join with me and throw together a batch of these tasty tin-cakes. Take my word for it - they'll give you a more positive perspective and remind you that there are better (and more delicious) things in life than the embarrassment you're feeling from that salt-switched-with-sugar act.

Savory Cheese, Cranberry and Herb Muffins (adapted from Whole Foods Market)
Makes 12 regular-sized muffins


1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup green onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried sage
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup almond meal (easy to find at Trader Joe's)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Generous pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup liquid egg whites
1 cup non-fat milk


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add green onions, thyme, oregano and sage. Cook for 2 minutes, until fragrant. remove from heat and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour and almond meal with baking powder, salt and cayenne. Stir in the cranberries and cheese. Set aside. In a second bowl, whisk together egg whites and milk. Add green onion mixture, including all of the oil, and whisk well.

Fold the flour mixture into the egg and milk mixture, mixing until just combined. Scoop batter into a lightly greased muffin tin. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes or until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before taking muffins out of the tin. Serve warm.